Author, English teacher and Murrysville native Kelly Coleman wanted to create an intelligent female protagonist.
Her publisher wasn’t so sure how that would go over.
“What I think is interesting is that (in the) ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Hunger Games’ (books), there are strong females, but apparently they can only exist in these sci-fi or dystopian worlds,” said Coleman, 29, of Pittsburgh’s Greenfield neighborhood.
Coleman’s novel, “Holding On and Letting Go,” chronicles a group of teen friends as one deals with the death of her younger brother. A 2008 University of Pittsburgh grad, Coleman set out to create an intimate, detailed — and most important for her — realistic portrayal of a teen girl coping with severe depression.
It all started after she lost a bet with her high school English students, in which the “punishment” was Coleman reading the “Twilight” books.
“I was horrified,” she said. “You have this teenage girl who basically curls into a ball for six months because her boyfriend dumps her. It’s just such a shallow vision of a teenage girl.”
Among her circle of friends at Franklin Regional High School, from which she graduated in 2003, Coleman said there wasn’t a lot of fretting about who did or didn’t have a date that weekend.
“My three best girl friends from high school are all doctors,” she said. “I work with teen girls all the time, and they’re not like (the ‘Twilight’ books) at all.”
After self-publishing her novel in 2013 through Amazon.com‘s digital-publishing service, Coleman began to garner positive reviews and by October 2013 had gained the attention of British publisher Lodestone Books.
Coleman said that in addition to the routine small grammar corrections and minor edits that she had anticipated, her manuscript got a criticism she was not expecting.
“My publisher was actually concerned that I’d made the female character too smart,” Coleman said. “I’d given the character a high IQ, and they asked if someone with that IQ could function well in society. Hers wasn’t the exact same as mine, but I told them I function perfectly well.”
Coleman said it also was important to her to focus parts of the story on the different ways her main character, Emerson Caulfield, coped with depression.
“If you look at women’s magazines, you see articles about getting ‘the perfect summer body,’ or the best gifts for your boyfriend and not many headlines on mental well-being,” she said.
Coleman said she ultimately wanted to buck the common tropes — such as the sexy airhead or the smart-but-mentally-unstable woman — that plague contemporary female characters. And the other characters in her book follow suit. There are no dumb jocks or evil, scheming cheerleading captains.
“(Those tropes) are the arcs that exist, predominantly,” she said. “So many teens are depicted as one-dimensional, and that’s not the way they are at all.”
While monitoring the sales progress of “Holding On and Letting Go,” Coleman still is forging ahead. She already has finished a second book and is working on her third. They follow Emerson’s group of friends as they exit high school and move on to college.
And just as in the real world, there is no “magic cure” for the Emerson’s pain.
“She is still dealing with the loss of her brother, but she learns how to cope,” Coleman said. “I don’t want to treat mental illness as some sort of easily-curable disease.”
Patrick Varine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-871-2365.